Tangible Atmosphere

Reality Machines explores Olafur Eliasson’s career, offering a unique look at an artist who uses nature as a material to create experiences.

The stainless steel surface of Olafur Eliasson’s Less ego wall (2015) reflects the bodies and light that move around it, its angles and protrusions creating distortions of form and ellipses of distance. It is half mirror, half void, projecting the room back onto the viewer while consuming it into a vacuum. The work has been specially made for the exhibition Reality machines at Moderna Museet and ArkDes, Stockholm, where it is shown alongside key pieces from a career in which Eliasson has tirelessly expanded the experience of a work of art beyond that of merely looking. Matilda Olof-Ors, curator of Reality machines, explains that the show is not a retrospective, but rather an attempt to bring together salient lines of enquiry pertaining to Eliasson’s architectural projects and experimental works of installation art.

Eliasson first gained widespread recognition for his Turbine Hall commission The weather project (2003) at London’s Tate Modern. A semi-circle of lamps perpendicular to a vast mirror on the ceiling, accompanied by an ever-billowing mist, gives the impression of the sun burning high in the sky – a simulation of nature that uses light and space to encourage critical reflection on natural and urban environments. Eliasson’s work is characterised by an abiding interest in the presence and participation of the viewer in an immersive environment that is at once familiar and alien. He is interested in perception as the pure act of the body receiving sensory information from the world; he wants to draw attention to what is seen, but also the act of seeing itself, a process of reflection he calls “seeing yourself seeing.” He is also very eager to make the viewer a part of the aesthetic experience.

Eliasson’s view of participation originates from his interest in the Object-Oriented philosophy of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman. Derived from a radical reading of Martin Heidegger, it holds that there is no distinction between subject and object, but only man and nature as equal parts of the fabric of the world, making the viewer a fully integrated participant in the artwork. Thus the observer’s experience is produced by both the artwork and their interaction with it. This aspect of Eliasson’s practice is neatly expressed in Riverbed (2014), shown at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk and featured in Aesthetica’s October/November 2014 issue: the gallery was filled with soil, rocks and streams of water, which viewers had to navigate their way through, enforcing an awareness of how the body interacts with the land, responding to material conditions on the ground.

This artistic interest in movement can be traced back to Eliasson’s teenage foray into breakdancing. His troupe, Harlem Gun Crew, performed in clubs across Copenhagen and won the Scandinavian breakdancing championships twice in the mid-1980s. Dance is characterised by an awareness of how the body relates to its surroundings. For Eliasson, everyday life, with its routines and actions, is a kind of choreographed motion that he seeks to make us acutely aware of, in order to reach a renewed understanding of it.

Space is therefore central to Eliasson’s work in both the abstract sense of a 3D plane, which can be divided according to the laws of geometry, and in the architectural sense of constructing spaces for human habitation. In 1996 Eliasson began working on experiments in geometry with the renowned Danish architect and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn. Their collaborations led to Model room (2003), a collection of experimental sculptures that often gave rise to full-scale artworks. The series is a testing-ground for ideas, and Olof-Ors interprets it as “an expression of the artist’s view of the importance of guiding thoughts to action”, which she then relates to questions surrounding ideas of democracy and the ways that free-thinking individuals can shape society through action. One of these experiments gave rise to the new work, Less ego wall; its pattern is reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Less ego wall demonstrates how space can be changed with as little physical incursion as the placement of mirrors that abstract the depth of the room, making bodies appear to have counter-intuitive relationships to one another. The work illustrates that space is just the standing possibility of division, and of geometry.

Eliasson does not believe in a strong separation between art and architecture, but rather sees both elds as being aesthetically and conceptually concerned with space. Eliasson engineers room by removing the layers and seeing what is left, building an immersive environment by subtracting all objects in order to make space itself the main component. For the 51st Venice Biennale, he worked with London-based architect David Adjaye to create Your black horizon (2005), a glowing LED strip around the perimeter of the room that is suggestive of the point at which the land meets the sea. In the darkness, the light in the distance makes the viewer increasingly aware of the void surrounding them.

Space, for Eliasson, is a material rather than a mere container, so his installations are immersive precisely because they do more than occupy room. They define and invite physical engagement, embracing this expanse and the bodies within it as a means of prompting extraordinary reflection on the ordinary world. A work such as Moss wall (1994) can be seen to reference Nordic landscape painting, but goes further in using the natural landscape – itself a manifestation of abstract space – as the material. The result is a living and breathing artwork, taken into the realm of human experience. Olof-Ors highlights this aspect of the work and adds that it forms “a vertical organic tapestry,” alluding to Eliasson’s engagement with traditional art historical forms.

Another of Eliasson’s primary materials is light, which he puts down to the fact that in his native Iceland, for 75% of the year, the shadow on the ground is longer than the object that casts it. Sometimes he uses light as the sole component, such as in The weather project, and at other times it is equal with other materials such glass and the concepts of non- Euclidian geometry, as in Lamp for urban movement (2011). But light, whenever Eliasson uses it, is always employed for its ethereal materiality, filling an area like smoke, and blanketing the viewer in its warmth. Liberated from the function of illumination, light o ers the possibility of colour and atmosphere; its presence or absence is the bedrock of aesthetic e ects and determines the extent to which you can see yourself seeing. Less ego wall is essentially a light work where the focal point of experience is the range created by the play of light on the surface of the object between the viewer and the wall, and the interaction established therein.

This is the crux of Eliasson’s entire oeuvre: materials are not just a means of producing a discrete object of art, but are rather the vehicles that determine experience and generate meaning. Whether it is wood, metal and soil, or light, space and time, the viewer’s understanding of both the work and the world it reflects upon is fully contained within and expressed by the particular properties of the materials.

The philosopher Fredric Jameson bemoaned the way that postmodernism’s obsession with the superficial surface of the work of art (referring to Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes from 1980) meant that there was no longer a rich world of meaning beyond the glittering surface. Eliasson’s materiality restores this depth by collapsing the distinction between the subject and the object: the viewer and the artwork become co- producers and both form an integral part of the experience. Eliasson mines each participant’s unique comprehension of his installations. From this improvisational and collaborative perspective, the artwork acquires limitless possibility as it depends on an entity beyond itself to obtain its meaning.

Instead of using nature as a theme or subject, as Turner did, or fashioning art out of the natural world, as practised by Robert Smithson, Eliasson recreates nature. Moss wall, for instance, simply is a wall of moss, rather than a representation of it, while Riverbed behaves in the gallery exactly as its counterpart outside of the gallery does. Eliasson’s great innovation is to replicate the natural world as the core content of his art, so it is no wonder that he refers to his studio in Berlin as “the reality-producing machine.”

The trick here is that Eliasson’s works awlessly simulate reality in their outcome, yet achieve this effect via an entirely premeditated method. It is through the conscious knowledge of this contradiction that Eliasson leads his audience to that crucial reflection on their interaction with their surroundings, causing them to reappraise familiar experiences. In The weather project, Eliasson reaches the halfway point between James Turrell’s Sky Spaces, where a peephole looks up into the real sky, and Robert Irwin’s Slant/Light/Volume (1971) works, which use artificial light to give the illusion of a shaft of sunlight. The weather project combines Turrell’s realistic sensation and Irwin’s visual illusion, but with the addition that here, nature is used as medium rather than mere subject.

The influence of Land and Light art of the 1960s and 1970s on Eliasson’s work is most keenly felt in the mood that permeates his installations. These enveloping spaces transport the viewer into the realm of the hyperreal, transcending the artwork, its associations and the gallery environment to reach a state of almost pure atmosphere.

Less ego wall encapsulates Eliasson’s participative, all-encompassing methodology in that its e ect depends not just on the material properties of steel or its particular geometry but also upon the viewer navigating and appraising the artwork in a particular way. The refraction of light, the delineation of space and the texture of materials all convene, generating a unique space from which to rediscover one’s perception of the world.

Olof-Ors highlights an illuminating paradox in the way this process typically unfolds. She explains how Eliasson’s work innately encourages the viewer to disconnect from their everyday lives and to lose themselves in the work, but notes that the audience often document their experience via social media. Although this stance seems at first glance to be at a physical remove from the immediacy of the artwork, it is actually a perfect expression of how we process authenticity in the modern world. In encouraging this apparent interruption of experience, Eliasson further facilitates the audience’s confrontation with their singular means of observation.

Words Daniel Barnes

Reality machines. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Until 17 January.